A total of 64 people, many of them children, perished in a fire that ravaged a busy shopping mall in an industrial city in Siberia, officials said on Monday as rescuers searched through piles of charred rubble to recover bodies.
Russian television showed images of thick black smoke pouring out of the roof of the Winter Cherry shopping centre in the city of Kemerovo, which also houses a sauna, a bowling alley and a multiplex cinema and was packed with people on Sunday afternoon.
Emergency Services Minister Vladimir Puchkov said on Russian television: “We have recorded that unfortunately as a result of the accident 64 people died.”
He said this was the “final figure”, and included six people still buried under the rubble.
Russia’s Investigative Committee said the roof collapsed in two theatres of the cinema in the blaze, which erupted at around 4pm local time (0900 GMT) on Sunday.
Witnesses told Russian television that some did not hear alarms or did not take them seriously and that the fire took hold very quickly, leaving many children separated from their parents.
“The alarm system didn’t work, people ran out screaming and in panic”, said a teenager, Milena, who had visited the mall with her parents.
Several witnesses said the doors of one of the shopping centre’s cinemas, where children were watching cartoon films, were locked.
“Whole classes of children from nearby villages were there, they were locked in [the cinema],” a witness who gave his name as Konstantin told Business Radio FM.
‘My daughter kept calling me’
Alexander Lillevyali, who lost 11-year-old twin daughters and a five-year-old daughter in the fire, told Meduza news site that his children called him to say they could not open the cinema’s door.
“My daughter kept calling me. I just shouted to her to try to and get out of the cinema but I couldn’t do anything, there were already flames in front of me,” he said.
Locals said that the cinema often locked its doors to stop people going in without tickets because it was understaffed.
The prosecutor general’s office said on Monday that all of the country’s shopping malls with entertainment areas will be checked for fire safety.
The local office of Russia’s Emergency Services Ministry said the fire broke out on the top floor of the four-storey mall, causing floors and the roof to collapse.
One witness, Anastasia Klepova, told Rossiya 24 television: “The evacuation signal only went off twice. We didn’t believe in the evacuation at first.”
“We emerged out of darkness and smoke. We were already all black. In two or three minutes, such smoke had risen up.”
Witnesses said many children were separated from adults, after coming to enjoy facilities including a trampoline centre.
‘It was just awful’
“People started running around, it was just awful. There were a lot of children, children without parents,” said witness Klepova.
Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova said that the most seriously injured survivor was an 11-year-old boy who jumped from the top floor to escape the fire, which killed all his family, but there were hopes for his survival.
She said an 18-year-old boy was also seriously injured after jumping from the top floor, while nine other people were suffering from smoke inhalation.
On Monday more than 500 firefighters were struggling to break down walls and clear rubble amid smoke-filled air and high temperatures, deploying drones.
The Investigative Committee said it had opened a criminal inquiry and four people, including the tenant renting the premises where the fire broke out and the head of the company that manages the mall, had been arrested.
President Vladimir Putin expressed condolences and cancelled a prize-giving ceremony, the Kremlin said.
Local authorities have announced three days of mourning in the Siberian region starting on Tuesday.
It was the deadliest blaze in Russia in recent years.
A shopping mall fire in March 2015 killed 11 people in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan some 800 kilometres east of Moscow.
In April 2013, a fire ravaged a psychiatric hospital in the Moscow region, killing 38 people, most of them patients who were engulfed by flames as they slept behind barred windows.
Just months later, in September 2013, 37 people were killed when a fire swept through a psychiatric hospital in the village of Luka in northwest Russia.
In 2009, 156 were killed in a nightclub fire in the city of Perm, 1,200 kilometres east of Moscow in one of the deadliest accidents in Russia’s modern history.